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Schwarzenegger was inconsistent on clemency

The former governor reduced the prison sentence of a political ally's son but reversed the parole board's decision to free dozens of inmates involved in similar crimes.

January 16, 2011|By Jack Dolan, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Sacramento — The reduced prison sentence that Arnold Schwarzenegger recently extended to a political ally's son stands in stark contrast to the former governor's denial of clemency for dozens of inmates involved in similar crimes.

In one year alone, Schwarzenegger cast aside decisions by the state's parole board to free 29 such inmates who had served long prison sentences. They, like former state Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez's son Esteban, participated in crimes that left a victim dead but did not deliver the fatal blows.

And like the younger Nuñez, 11 of those inmates had no previous criminal record, according to orders from the governor's office in 2009, the most recent year for which records are publicly available.

Read the document: Executive report on parole review decisions

Among the reasons Schwarzenegger frequently gave for reversing the parole board — a panel appointed by his office and dominated by former police and corrections officers — was that the victim had been killed over something "trivial."

In addition, the offender had demonstrated "callous disregard for human suffering," often by fleeing the scene and leaving the victim to die, as Nuñez did after he and his friends drunkenly attacked a group of strangers on a San Diego street in 2008 after being denied entrance to a fraternity party.

Schwarzenegger laid out circumstances strikingly similar to those of the Nuñez case in a June 2009 order overturning the parole board's decision to free Sieu Ngo, who had served 16 years for his role in a gang assault at Fullerton High School.

Like Nuñez , Ngo was 19 at the time of his crime. It was September 1992 when he and four friends chased and beat a rival gang member, Angel Gonzalez. During the attack, one of Ngo's accomplices pulled a gun and shot Gonzalez once in the back, killing him. And like Nuñez, Ngo then hopped in a car with the others and hit the road.

In the Nuñez case, the politician's son had stabbed one victim in the stomach while a friend fatally stabbed another in the heart. Then they drove to Sacramento and threw their knives in a river. Ngo's group drove to Washington state, where they were arrested a month and a half later, according to Schwarzenegger's order.

Schwarzenegger acknowledged that Ngo, who is serving 16 years to life, had maintained "supportive relationships with family and friends" during his time in prison and had a job offer waiting for him if he got out. But the former governor argued that Ngo still failed to take full responsibility for his actions, a trait he had demonstrated after the attack by fleeing to another state, Schwarzenegger wrote.

Eighteen months after ordering Ngo to stay in prison, Schwarzenegger cut Nuñez's sentence by more than half, from 16 years to seven. Nuñez had served six months at the time and would not have been eligible for parole until roughly 2023.

"I'd love to ask the [former] governor what distinguishes one case from the other," said Keith Wattley, an attorney who represents inmates seeking parole. The Ngo case, he said, "exemplifies the arbitrary nature of this."

An e-mail to The Times from Daniel Ketchell, Schwarzenegger's personal aide, said the former governor would not elaborate beyond his written orders.

Charles Sevilla, a San Diego attorney for Nuñez, said Schwarzenegger's reasons for reducing the sentence — Nuñez wasn't the killer and had no prior record — would not have attracted attention without the famous name.

"Take the politics out, and people would say it's not an irrational act by the governor. But when you add in the fact that it's Fabian Nuñez's son, that perspective goes out the window."

Asked why he thought other inmates didn't get the same treatment, Sevilla said, "It's difficult to make comparisons between cases" like that of Ngo, who was convicted of second-degree murder, and Nuñez, who was charged with murder but pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter.

Schwarzenegger also denied clemency for Linnea Adams, who was 17 in 1997 when she slid behind the steering wheel and drove some friends to Half Moon Bay, where they robbed another teenager. One of her friends shot and killed the victim in the back seat of the car, then pushed him out. Adams stepped on the gas and sped away.

She had no prior criminal record and had not been disciplined for any rule violations during more than 12 years in prison at the time of her parole hearing, Schwarzenegger's order said.

But the former governor rejected the board's decision to free her because she had admitted to being on methamphetamine at the time of the crime, and she had participated in drug and alcohol treatment programs for only three years.

Schwarzenegger also said Adams, who according to the order is serving 15 years to life, had demonstrated "exceptionally callous disregard for human suffering" by leaving the victim to die.

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